Tonga gets its first EVER Covid case: Traveller flying from New Zealand tests positive after entering hermit island
Tonga today recorded its first ever Covid case after a plane passenger from New Zealand tested positive for virus upon arrival.
The Pacific Ocean island was one of the few nations to have escaped the impact of the pandemic, partly due to it closing its borders to almost all travellers.
There have been fears that if the virus ever took hold in Tonga the country’s under-resourced health system would be unable to cope.
Tonga’s neighbour Fiji managed to avoid significant Covid outbreaks until April this year.
Tonga is located almost 1,500 miles from New Zealand, the island nation is home to about 106,000 and has now recorded it first ever Covid case, after an passenger on a flight from New Zealand tested positive for the virus
Tonga has a vaccination rate far below Australia, New Zealand and the UK, meaning most of the population is unprotected from a potential Covid outbreak.
The Delta variant ripped through the island chain, infecting more than 50,000 people and killing nearly 700.
Now there are fears the same could happen to Tonga, with officials now deciding what action to take to halt any potential spread.
Tonga’s Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa today revealed the traveler was among 215 passengers who had arrived on a flight from the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Wednesday.
The traveller was isolating at a quarantine hotel. No other details about the infected person have yet come to light.
Health officials are planning to make an announcement on Monday about any future lockdowns, according to news website Matangi Tonga.
New Zealand relaxes quarantine rules as ‘hermit nation’ moves to reconnect with world
Ms Ardern, 41, is taking baby steps towards reconnecting NZ with the world – cutting down quarantine from 14 days to seven – but is giving no guarantees to trans-Tasman families hoping to reunite for Christmas.
On Thursday, Ms Ardern’s COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said the shortened hotel quarantine period for those double-vaccinated will start from November 14, though arrivals will have to isolate at home for another three days.
NZ will also allow travellers from low-risk countries – Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tokelau – to bypass hotel quarantine altogether from November 8.
Australia is not on the quarantine-free list, despite those from low-risk states able to visit NZ freely for several months earlier this year under the trans-Tasman bubble.
Christchurch was Covid free for months until this week, when four community cases were reported after a returning resident caught the virus in Auckland, where an outbreak has been growing since August.
Officials in New Zealand said the traveller to Tonga was fully vaccinated prior to their departure, having received a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on 15 October.
They had returned a negative Covid test before leaving for Tonga but a routine Day 0 arrival test in the pacific nation had come back positive.
New Zealand officials said they would be working with their Tongan counterparts to confirm the case and provide more details in the coming days.
Tongan Health Ministry chief executive Dr Siale ´Akau´ola said it was unfortunate the plane had already left Christchurch before the news came of the community cases there, Matangi Tonga reported.
Dr ´Akau´ola said all frontline workers including health staff, police officers and airport staff who were on duty when the plane arrived had also gone into quarantine after the positive case was confirmed.
He added that all those working near the flight had been vaccinated.
The outbreak came one day after New Zealand announced it would be expanding one way quarantine free travel to Tonga, allowing Kiwis and double-jabbed travellers skip quarantine restrictions from 8 November.
Tonga currently only allows nationals back into the country on a weekly flight from New Zealand.
New Zealand has mirrored Australia in adopting an expensive hermit policy for most of the Covid pandemic, restricting flights to returning nationals who must obey strict quarantine procedures.
Earlier this year it did make an agreement with Australia to allow travel between the two nations but they still must follow quarantine procedures. The 14-day quarantine is set to be reduced to just a week by 14 November.
Located almost 1,500 miles north east of New Zealand, Tonga is home to about 106,000 people.
Only about 31 per cent of Tongans are fully vaccinated with 41 per cent have had at least one dose, according to research group Our World in Data.
This is far behind both New Zealand and the UK with the countries having fully vaccinated 63 and 67 per cent of their eligible population respectively.